Friday, March 14, 2008

The Family

The Family - 1974 - oil on canvas

The Yom Kippur War of 1973, which menaced Israel's existence and forced on the rest of the world an unexpected oil crisis, had many far-reaching repercussions. Among others, it plunged London into a prolonged power shortage and bathed the city in romantic candlelight. An exhibition of my paintings, planned by one of the leading London galleries, had to be cancelled. But a timely proposal came from an enterprising New York art dealer. He offered to hold my show in his gallery on Madison Avenue. Since its space was large, I would need to add a couple of sizeable canvases. Could I create them in time?

I responded to the challenge with enthusiasm. Hastily exchanging my army uniform for a painter's coveralls, I placed myself before a large white canvas in my studio and let my hand sketch straight lines, curves and circles. My memory, stirred by the recent Israeli conflict, began to supply visual material from a more distant war. Gradually I transformed my schematic grid into more specific images. In the end a multitude of faces and objects, all familiar from other paintings, gathered themselves into this single canvas. The result was the strange group portrait that I have named The Family.

The Family sums up many of my artistic themes. The rear plan is a dark and smoke laden sky. In the first plan, bathed in a neutrally diffused light, a monumental egg, similar to a stone monument, is riddled by bullet holes. The beings that crowd the space between these two, speak of an ongoing process that is suspended between the forces of life, and the forces of death that are assaulting them.

The "story" of The Family starts at the top. Near the image of a forebear, a grandfatherly face wearing the black glasses of a blind man, is a face depicted on a half-lost panel, cut off just at the eyes. Its Leonardesque features are perhaps an allusion to the inventive talents of my blind great-grandfather and his son-in-law, my grandfather. At the time I was working on this canvas my memory was calling up many other figures of my family's colorful saga. And I painted many of them, some familiar and some less so. Several are presented as broken monuments, a few as eyeless masks, and certain ones as fragments that defy recomposition. Strewn among expressionless faces are composite beings in various modes of destruction and reconstruction, some of them images drawn from the fragmented plaster moulds that my first art teacher in Vilna gave me as models. Some heads are entirely covered in a shroud-like fabric, others only partly. Among them hide several soldiers who have come directly from the Yom Kippur war.

Positioned on an artist's easel, as a painting within a painting, I placed two ladies wearing hats from the late 1930's. This was the period in which my parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents - my entire family - seemed to be blind to the fate that was awaiting them. A boy with a cap, possibly the famous boy of the Warsaw Ghetto, peeks at us from behind this imagined canvas.

The painting contains some hints of primitive machinery, for me a reminder of the inventive spirit of my Grandfather Khone, a precision mechanic, whom I picture as a wounded WW I soldier. Improvised devices have been jerry-rigged to hold together the fragments of a world that has suffered cataclysm. In their incapacity, these devices could serve as metaphors of every artist's craft. The hopeless wish to restore a former reality, a recurring motif in my own art, is embodied in the scatter of disintegrating artifacts.

In face of all this struggle and disintegration, confronted with a world that seems to have rejected the knowledge of its past errors, on an earth whose burning horizon illuminates an endless stream of refugees, these afflicted people gather in their huge Family portrait and look at us inquiringly, asking to be remembered.

Text by Samuel Bak, from Between Worlds: The Paintings of Samuel Bak from 1946-2000.

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